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From the March 2001 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 48, No. 03)

Chile

Pinochet: Legal Battle

Robert Taylor, World Press Review contributing editor

Former Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s reluctant agreement in January to submit to psychological tests and judicial interrogation regarding his alleged role in the kidnapping of 18 dissidents and the murder of 57 during the 1973 “Caravan of Death” marked a first step toward a definitive verdict, closing this infamous chapter in Chile’s history.

Beyond the immediate legal battle over whether test findings that he suffers “vascular subcortical dementia” render him unfit to stand trial under Chilean law, however, press commentators in Chile agreed that the nation faces a protracted settling of accounts in the courts of law and public opinion before it can make peace with its past.

The conservative La Tercera of Santiago (Jan. 16) observed that Juan Guzmán, presiding judge in the “Caravan of Death” case, retained the discretion to decide whether Pinochet’s psychological condition has deteriorated sufficiently to prevent a fair trial. Pinochet is charged with issuing directives to dispatch an elite armed forces team to carry out executions of dissidents imprisoned at several locations around the country in the month following the September 1973 coup.

“With the test results in hand,” La Tercera wrote, Pinochet’s defense team “will assert that Pinochet runs a serious risk of death, and that therefore the suit must be dismissed….The plaintiffs will counter...by saying that the diagnosis delivered by the experts can only serve as an extenuating circumstance at the time of determining a penalty...not to stop the case” from moving to trial.

Carmen Hertz, a member of the plaintiffs’ legal team and widow of an executed dissident, told Mauricio Carvallo of Santiago’s conservative El Mercurio (Jan. 7), “The nation faces the dilemma of either developing as a civilized society or entering into a near-feudal epoch. Pinochet must comply with the laws and the constitution, and cannot...set himself apart as a citizen separate from all others.”

Hertz denied that her determination to bring Pinochet to justice for human rights violations committed by armed forces and security officers during the general’s 17-year dictatorship amounts to a quest for revenge. “Quite the contrary, it averts vengeance,” she told Carvallo. “But I have never had the slightest doubt that without the intervention of Pinochet, that campaign of extermination would never have been possible.”

The administration of President Ricardo Lagos is bracing for a fresh wave of popular anger following release of an explosive final report by the round-table commission of military officers, government officials, and human-rights attorneys who sought to document the fate of hundreds of Chileans who were slain or disappeared during the 1970s and 1980s, La Tercera reported (Jan. 8).

“The climate of catharsis will lead others...who until now have refused to speak, to agree to tell what they know. Add to that the completion by April of emblematic cases of the 1980s…which will involve high-ranking officers since retired.” Government sources told La Tercera that popular indignation over the armed forces’ role in the deaths “will prevent steps toward any formula designed to protect those responsible for human rights violations,” at least prior to congressional elections later this year.

But in the longer view, La Tercera noted, “the government is betting that political conditions will begin to calm once the truth is known…. Just as the signing of the round-table dialogue accord was unthinkable before Pinochet’s detention [in the U.K.], the resolution of a significant number of cases will lead society to accept and even request a definitive closure to the transition.”

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